By David Lyman
At first, it seemed like a pipe dream. It was 2012, and Madcap Puppets engineered the purchase of a former telephone switching station in Westwood.
The building was huge – 20,000 square feet – and it was elaborately decked out with gargoyles and Rookwood tile. But thanks to the involvement of the Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corp., Madcap paid just $1 for the property. Still, it was a wildly ambitious move for a group of touring puppeteers.
Despite their best efforts, they weren’t able to turn the building into a new home. They raised roughly $1 million, but that was only a fraction of what it would cost to complete the job.
Fast-forward a few years. It turns out another ambitious West Side arts organization was looking to expand. Cincinnati Landmark Productions – the umbrella organization for the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre and the Cincinnati Young People’s Theatre – was bursting at the seams.
It wasn’t looking to open another theater, but because of the continued success of the Young People’s Theatre, founded in 1982, the group wanted to expand its educational offerings.
You can probably hear this coming.
On Nov. 2, that elegant old building opened its doors as the Madcap Education Center. Madcap and Cincinnati Landmark Productions merged their operations in 2017. After a good deal of wheeling and dealing and the infusion of funding related to federal tax credits, the $4 million project came to fruition.
The artistic benefits are obvious. For the first time since it was founded in 1981, Madcap will have a dedicated theater. It’s a roomy, high-ceilinged second-floor space that seats 130. As evidence of the center’s economic support, it’s called the TriHealth Performance Hall.
Downstairs, Madcap has offices, studios and a distance learning center where artistic director Dylan Shelton plans to offer workshops and how-to sessions to classrooms around the globe.
And Cincinnati Landmark Productions finally will have the space to offer a full schedule of classes: acting, dancing, singing and anything else in demand.
The benefits go far beyond the Rookwood tile-lined front doorway of the center. The hope is that this long-awaited renovation will make the building one of the anchors for a reborn downtown Westwood.
It’s not an unrealistic expectation. If you drive along the half-mile stretch of Harrison Avenue surrounding the Madcap Education Center, you will find that recent years have seen entrepreneurial activity the likes of which Westwood hasn’t seen for several decades.
“There has been a lot of money flowing into this area,” said Henry Frondorf, president of the Westwood Civic Association. He rattles off a list of recent improvements and new businesses: the renovation of Westwood Town Hall and the adjoining park, the Muse cafe, West Side Brewery, a planned second location for Pendleton’s Nation Kitchen + Bar. That’s in addition to the decades-old Henke Winery, directly across Harrison Avenue from the education center.
“We’re even beginning to see people move from Over-the-Rhine to Westwood,” Frondorf said. “These are the sorts of businesses that make a move like that feel more practical. Most of the people we’ve seen started out when they were single in OTR. Now, they’re married and want to start a family, but they want a little land and a little bigger house. Westwood is a great value.”
And, presumably, having a thriving community arts center in the heart of Westwood will help to make it an even better value.
There is also a burgeoning racial diversity in the area that, in decades past, was seen by many as a negative. To many of today’s community leaders, it is seen as a strength and a positive selling point.
“We have some families from the Middle East and Africa who are starting to call Westwood home,” said Leslie Rich, board chair of Westwood Works, a community development organization. “That’s on top of the Latino families we already have here. There are also some Asian families. We’re starting to look like the rest of the country.”
“Westwood Central” is what Tim Perrino calls it. He’s the artistic director of Cincinnati Landmark Productions. It’s not like a busy town square yet, but there is an unmistakable robustness of activity in the neighborhood.
Perrino and Shelton and the rest of the staffs can devote only so much time to reflecting on their success, though. Covedale opens “A Christmas Story” on Nov. 29, while the Incline is preparing for a handful of holiday-themed performances.
As for Madcap, it is preparing for its annual appearances at the Cincinnati Zoo’s PNC Festival of Lights (through Jan. 1) and participation in the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” running Dec. 21-23 at Xavier University’s Gallagher Center Theater. (More information here)
“We love the work we are able to do with CCO,” said Shelton, who also directs the “Amahl” production. “They are such good and experienced collaborators. If you end up with collaborators who aren’t attentive, it can make life a lot more complicated, but if you have a relationship like the one we have with CCO, the results can be great. And I think that’s exactly what ‘Amahl’ is. Really great.”